on May 14, 2009
Arecibo Observatory is the world's largest telescope. It's huge dish for collecting radio waves is set in a hollow in the karst landscape of north-central Puerto Rico, about two hours west of San Juan. The main spherical reflector, fixed in place, is 305 meters across and is composed of over 38000 individual aluminum panels. The telescope's super-cooled receivers are suspended in the air above the dish on a mobile platform which is moved to pick-up the signals coming off different directions from the reflector.Arecibo has been a tool in many significant discoveries in radio astronomy, such as measuring the rotation rate of mercury or determining the periodicity of the crab pulsar, and it acquires the data for the SETI@home search for extraterrestrial intelligenceArecibo has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows, including my favorite, a great fight scene in a James Bond movie.Visiting Arecibo is very interesting and educational. You begin your visit with a short film about how the scientists work at Arecibo. There's a very nice visitors center which is sort of a hands-on science museum with exhibits explaining how Arecibo's science works and other displays about our solar system. On the path leading up to the telescope, there's even a scale model of the solar system. The nice visitor center/museum provides more to do than just drive there, see the dish, say, "Wow, cool" and drive back.You need a car to get to Arecibo. Most of the drive is along a high-speed tollway stretching west from San Juan. Then you turn south through the interesting limestone karst terrain, which consists of vegetation-covered limestone hills interspersed with sinkholes where the underlying porous limestone caves have collapsed.There are other more active, adventurous activities related to caves and rivers in the area, but they were closed the day we happened to visit, so you may want to plan ahead to make a whole day of it. Arecibo itself is not open every day, depending on the season, so definitely check ahead. Except for June-July and Christmas-New Year's time, it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
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